My Dirty Little Secret: I Ride the Rails to Read

by Corey Robin on June 14, 2014

Like most academics, I read articles and books. Unlike most academics (maybe, I don’t really know), reading has become harder and harder for me. Not simply because of the distractions that come with department politics, administrative duties (come July 1, I’m chair of my department), advising grad students, and teaching. I wish it were as noble as that. No, the reason I find it so difficult to read these days, now years, is the internet.

Which is why I was so relieved to read this wonderful post by Tim Parks about how difficult it is now to read.

Every reader will have his or her own sense of how reading conditions have changed, but here is my own experience. Arriving in the small village of Quinzano, just outside Verona, Italy, thirty-three years ago, aged twenty-six, leaving friends and family behind in the UK, unpublished and unemployed, always anxious to know how the next London publisher would respond to the work I was writing, I was constantly eager for news of one kind or another. International phone-calls were prohibitively expensive. There was no fax, only snail mail, as we called it then. Each morning the postino would, or might, drop something into the mailbox at the end of the garden. I listened for the sound of his scooter coming up the hairpins from the village. Sometimes when the box was empty I would hope I’d heard wrong, and that it hadn’t been the postino’s scooter, and go out and check again an hour later, just in case. And then again. For an hour or so I would find it hard to concentrate or work well. You are obsessed, I would tell myself, heading off to check the empty mailbox for a fourth time.

Imagine a mind like this exposed to the seductions of email and messaging and Skype and news websites constantly updating on the very instrument you use for work. In the past, having satisfied myself that the postman really had come and gone, the day then presented itself as an undisturbed ocean of potential—for writing (by hand), reading (on paper), and, to pay the bills, translating (on a manual typewriter). It was even possible in those days to see reading as a resource to fill time that hung heavy when rain or asphyxiating heat forced one to stay indoors.

Now, on the contrary, every moment of serious reading has to be fought for, planned for.

I, too, remember when reading was an effortless way to pass the time. And what my work routine looked like as a result. Writing in the morning, reading in the afternoon, writing in the evening. Reading was easy. It required less concentration and stamina, so I did it during the lazy hours after lunch. My most alert times—just after my morning coffee and during my insomniac hours—were reserved for writing.

Nowadays, it’s the reverse. Writing absorbs me, so I do it in the afternoons, maybe the evenings. But reading, as Parks writes, has to be planned for. I have to wrest my reading time from the come-hither arms of the internet, so I do it in the morning.

Here’s how I do it. After I drop off my daughter at school or summer camp, I jump on the subway. I ride the rails for three to four hours. Maybe the F train: out to Coney Island, back through Brooklyn, into Manhattan, out to Forest Hills, and then back. Or if I’m pressed for time, just the Q train: again out to Coney, back through Brooklyn, into Manhattan, out to Astoria, and back. Or if I’m in the mood for a change, the B or the D trains: they ultimately take me to the Bronx and back.

I take nothing with me but my book and a pen. I take notes on the front and back pages of the book. If I run out of pages, I carry a little notebook with me. I never get off the train (except, occasionally, to meet my wife for lunch in Manhattan.) I have an ancient phone, so there’s no internet or desire to text, and I’m mostly underground, so there are no phone calls.

When I get back, I sometimes post about my little rides and what I’m reading on Facebook: Schumpeter in Queens, The Theory of Moral Sentiments in the Bronx, Hayek in Brooklyn. The more incongruous, the better, though sometimes I find some funny or interesting parallels between what I’m reading and where I’m riding and what I’m seeing.

But the joking on Facebook covers up my dirty little secret: I ride the rails to read because if I’m at home, and not writing, I’m on the internet. “It is not simply that one is interrupted,” as Park writes; “it is that one is actually inclined to interruption.”

I’m not sure why it’s reading that requires these Odysseus-like acts of self-denial (sometimes I also use the Freedom program to read), while writing does not. I suspect it has something to do with what Parks says: “The mind, or at least my mind, is overwhelmingly inclined toward communication or, if that is too grand a word, to the back and forth of contact with others.” When I write, I feel like I’m in communication with others: not only my imagined readers, but also my imagined interlocutors—the people I’m arguing with, the theorists I’m arguing about, that professor in grad school whose comments still spark my imagination. It’s nothing as grand as what Machiavelli described in his letter to Vettori:

On the coming of evening, I return to my house and enter my study; and at the door I take off the day’s clothing, covered with mud and dust, and put on garments regal and courtly; and reclothed appropriately, I enter the ancient courts of ancient men, where, received by them with affection, I feed on that food which only is mine and which I was born for, where I am not ashamed to speak with them and to ask them the reason for their actions; and they in their kindness answer me; and for four hours of time I do not feel boredom, I forget every trouble, I do not dread poverty, I am not frightened by death; entirely I give myself over to them.

But it’s definitely company.

Reading feels much more solitary. It can be boring and passive, and when it’s not, when I find something interesting that excites me, I want to share it with everyone. If I’m reading at home, I rush to the computer, and post about it on Facebook or on my blog. And then I don’t get off. For hours. When I’m on the train, there’s nothing to do, but note it on the back page, and stay on. For hours.



Anarcissie 06.15.14 at 12:27 am

Why isn’t reading also a communication with another?


Corey Robin 06.15.14 at 12:43 am

It certainly can be but for me it’s not. Unless an idea really grabs me, I tend to be more passive when I read. It’s only when I write that I’m really forced to think about what’s being said, to engage with it in a more active way. Tho I can’t be sure I suspect in the end that’s true for everyone. It’s only when we write about something that we are really forced to figure it out, and it’s only when we’re really forced to figure it out that we start asking deeper and deeper questions of the text. And then and only then do we start getting answers. I.e., dialogue. It’s not to say that some version of that doesn’t happen when we read; it’s just more in depth, more intense, when we write. Again, definitely for me, but also, probably, some version of that for others.


Brett 06.15.14 at 12:44 am

You’re still reading, even if it’s not traditional-style books. I find it hard myself to sit down and read traditional books now, especially if they’re non-fiction. I get impatient with many of them, with what often feels like padding and redundant points. It’s also why I have a hard time buying a lot of books these days, since I keep running into books where I think “You know, this would be a really good 25-75 page essay/short book, but at full length it’s just bloated”.


bob mcmanus 06.15.14 at 12:51 am

1: Of course it is; but two’s company, three’s a crowd. A book is a very jealous lover. “Think only of me” it asks.

Sumgum, and here I just read B Anderson on how the novel and newspaper created an internalized contemporary community. Willed alienation is required of the faithful reader. I haven’t learned Japanese because I want to constantly be reminded that these aren’t my movies, this isn’t my nation. We don’t belong to each other. I should rad more about tourism, expatriates, exiles but I dont want to join them either.

I reread the end of the Machiavelli. Looks like poverty, chastity, and obedience to me, with an a soupcon of amor fati. Reading is not quite a hermetic activity, but at its best is a passionately antisocial one.

I take way too many notes with a mind to share. A sordid vice.


Harold 06.15.14 at 12:59 am

I do most of my serious reading on the subway also. Two hours of uninterrupted reading. What bliss!

While commuting by car I used to listen to books on tape.


Lee A. Arnold 06.15.14 at 2:00 am

My computer was down for four days and after the initial agitations wore off I read Bertrand Russell’s My Philosophical Development and Berlin’s Roots of Romanticism (which is a bit of a hodgepodge, but connects nicely to some themes from Lovejoy in my pursuit of the historical roots of right-wing tribalism). Computer now back, and it’s like mental vomit pouring in through the window. It is nice to be connected to people, but in terms of finding good thinking it is increasingly worthless. Wisdom of crowds, my ass. It’s as bad as watching network broadcast television.


Anarcissie 06.15.14 at 2:06 am

‘A good book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.’ Of course, I pulled that off the Net.


Barry Freed 06.15.14 at 2:25 am

I also read on the subway, and I’ve also thought about just riding the subway to read before. But I found I read faster and with far greater focus on my reading material when I was commuting into Manhattan by train (LIRR) then I’ve been doing by subway from Astoria. I think it has to do partly with the different seating arrangements, facing forward in rows on the train vs. facing the other passengers in the car on the subway. Also, people on the subway tend to be much more interesting.


Corey Robin 06.15.14 at 2:29 am

Interesting, Barry. I found that the commuter trains to the burbs — one year I had to ride NJ Transit to Princeton — are incredibly distracting with noise. You can actually hear people’s conversations. There’s something about the loud din of the subway that turns into all into white noise. So for me it’s much easier to concentrate.


Harold 06.15.14 at 2:55 am

Astoria isn’t quite far enough. Since our son moved there his reading has suffered.


John Quiggin 06.15.14 at 3:01 am

“connects nicely to some themes from Lovejoy in my pursuit of the historical roots of right-wing tribalism”

I’d be interested to read more about this. I’m guessing you mean
of whom I’d never heard before now.


GiT 06.15.14 at 3:22 am

I feel similarly. I have lots of trouble reading anything of substance outside of a bus or train nowadays. The sustained reading faculty is otherwise pretty burnt out.


geo 06.15.14 at 3:37 am

Could it be that slower, harder, smaller, and less is sometimes better than faster, easier, bigger, and more? Pretty retro thought …


Neil Levy 06.15.14 at 3:41 am

Confirmation bias? As people get older, they find it harder to get absorbed in books. For our generation, getting older coincided with the massive penetration of the internet. We therefore blame the raise of the internet for our inability to focus. I think that’s a hypothesis worth exploring.

I find it hard to concentrate on reading too. And I too use the public transport strategy to focus. I use my commute, about 50 minutes each way, as my main reading time. But I read on my internet connected device. I find it much harder to get absorbed in fiction nowadays, but my reading for work is easier now than ever.


Corey Robin 06.15.14 at 3:42 am

geo: It was your tweet (faster, easier, smaller, and less) to Sven Birkets that alerted me to the Parks post.


Jim Harrison 06.15.14 at 4:04 am

I had my annual eye exam the other day. The doctor remarked that more and more of her patients complain of eyestrain these days. She thinks they just don’t realize that Internet use has vastly increased the hours they spend reading even though, if anything, they are reading fewer books. I expect she’s right. You can complain about the triviality of most of what gets read on the screen, but the sheer volume is remarkable. It may be that people also write a great deal more than ever before, albeit what they are writing are emails, text messages, tweets, and irritated paragraphs in comment threads.


Warren Terra 06.15.14 at 4:31 am

I am reminded of an interview with the British comedian and comedy writer John Finnemore in which he said he got his writing done by taking long train voyages across Europe, writing en route and playing tourist when not on a train.


Plarry 06.15.14 at 4:38 am

For me, it is the opposite. I have no trouble reading, but finding time to write among the distractions of the internet and so many things to read….


Chris Mealy 06.15.14 at 5:00 am

Corey, if you’re spending that much time on the subway then you’re going to go deaf. Take care of your ears!


Harold 06.15.14 at 5:52 am

My previous link on the caricature thread didn’t work, so …….1B/0000001.000.html

That one should do it. It is an article that considers The Great Chain of Being from the point of view of the history of science.

I myself became interested in Lovejoy after becoming aware of his Primitivism and Related Ideas in Antiquity and also his devastating article on “The Supposed Primitivism of Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality”, first published in 1923, I believe, and much reprinted (though never absorbed, it appears). (Lovejoy is mentioned in passing — or at least his name appears — in one of Saul Bellow’s novels, I forget which one.) As an old man, he wanted to criminalize membership in the Communist Party, which wasn’t a very nice way to cap his career. It just shows that old age plus all that reading doesn’t necessarily make you wiser in everything. And, as a reader, few probably existed who had read as much as Lovejoy.

People used to read a great deal more in those days. They binged — the way they do now on TV series — I remember myself getting through Crime and Punishment in two days at the age of 15 and this was not especially unusual. My grandfather claimed it was the only book he had ever read or wanted to read — and I’m sure he got through it just as quickly — that must have been before WW 1. After that he stuck to the sports page.


bad Jim 06.15.14 at 7:07 am

In my very limited understanding of linguistics, equating riding with reading seems like a simple substitution of vowels, and conflating communing with commuting sounds like nasal congestion.


chris 06.15.14 at 1:05 pm

State and Revolution, The Potential of Politics, The Lotus Sutra are among some of the things that I get through on the subway. But I have to be selective. I too get impatient very easily now as an earlier comment noted:arguments are too facile, obvious, badly written. I have shelves of half read books so I reserve precious subway time for weightier stuff. Internet is part of it but also the sheer volume of shit that has to be done. Subway is real alone time when no demands can be made of me


chris 06.15.14 at 1:15 pm

and in my case it was 26 years ago in a small town in Colombia at the age of 23 where the getting and writing of letters, reading, writing up field notes and writing ideas now seems like this golden era of concentration and creativity. now I’m just distracted all the time.

which is the point really I suppose. there was a course in my program a couple of years ago titled Weapons of Mass Distraction. you WILL be entertained


The Tragically Flip 06.15.14 at 2:08 pm

This post did it. I will now sit on the deck and finish “The Entrepreneurial State” by MarianaMazzucato before it becomes overdue.


PJW 06.15.14 at 3:00 pm

I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit lately and posted about it last week on FB, where I concluded that my decreasing attention span for long books isn’t a huge negative in my reading life. Huge books of fiction and nonfiction have been behind me for quite awhile now, probably 10 years. In a rare case, I’d read a massive tome depending on who wrote it. I set out yesterday to get through a work of nonfiction, the first since I read a couple of shorter Melville works about five months ago. I got through the book, but it was only 140 pages long. I had few distractions and it was a good read so it was a pleasure. One thought that’s been on my mind in relation to this is wondering how high school teachers get students to read something like David Copperfield, a book assigned to us in 9th-grade English. Not an easy book for most students in the mid-70s, so I imagine it has to be much more difficult now. I don’t know.


nnyhav 06.15.14 at 4:24 pm

He suddenly realized that what he was getting at could best be defined, without much ado, as the futile actuality or the eternal momentariness of literature. Does it lead to anything? Literature is either a tremendous detour from experience to experience, ending back where it came from, or an epitome of sensations that leads to nothing at all definite. “A puddle,” he thought, “has often made a stronger impression of depth on someone than the ocean, for the simple reason that we have more occasion to experience puddles than oceans.” It seemed to him that it was the same with feelings, which was the only reason commonplace feelings are regarded as the deepest. Putting the ability to feel above the feeling itself — the characteristic of all sensitive people — like the wanting to make others feel and be made to feel that it is the common impulse behind all our arrangements concerning the emotional life, amounts to downgrading the importance and nature of the feelings compared with their fleeting presence as a subjective state, and so leads to that shallowness, stunted development, and utter irrelevance, for which there is no lack of examples. “Of course,” Ulrich added mentally, “this view will repel all those people who feel as cozy in their feelings as a rooster in his feathers and who even preen themselves on the idea that eternity starts all over again with every separate ‘personality’!” He had a clear mental image of an immense perversity of a scope involving all mankind, but he could not find a way to express it that would satisfy him, probably because its ramifications were too intricate.

Robert Musil, The Man without Qualities, V.II §22 (rumination whilst “watching the passing trolley cars, waiting for the one that would take him back as close as possible to the center of town.”)


PJW 06.15.14 at 4:43 pm

Make that “to get through a work of FICTION” at 25.


Lee A. Arnold 06.15.14 at 5:03 pm

The Great Chain of Being by Arthur O. Lovejoy is subtitled “A Study of the History of an Idea.” But it isn’t just any old idea. It is a profound and all-encompassing mental predisposition which ruled Western religion, philosophy, poetry, social justifications and politics, from Plato and Aristotle up through an apotheosis in the 18th century, after which the idea started to break up. Or so Lovejoy thought that it was finally dissipating,

The following will make it seem too simpleminded: the great chain of being is the idea that the universe is structured by emanation downward and outward from a central high absolute (“God” or “the good”) and it passes down through all the forms of life and down into the lifeless materials, always following three derivative principles: plenitude, continuity, and gradation. Lovejoy gives a hundred examples of their expressions, and a deep study of how they interlocked:

Plenitude, or fullness: The perfect creator would create all possible kinds and forms of things. –From Plato. (If any form was missing, then the creator could not be perfect. QED) Lovejoy, p. 52.

Continuity: There are no gaps between things. –Originally from Aristotle who was of course also the Great Classifier, but who suggested the limits and dangers of classification and discreteness, e.g. Zeno’s paradoxes. p. 58.

Gradation: There is a hierarchy of excellence of the created beings, determined by their degree of privation of the perfect good (i.e. their lack of potentiality of perfection is their distance from God). p. 59.

All this was explicitly synthesized in Neoplatonism and it dominated Western thought until the 18th century. The bulk of Lovejoy’s book carefully follows the expressions of the great chain of being in thought and culture through the medieval period, the voyages of discovery, the discoveries of the telescope and microscope, and into the 18th century (and early 19th) social and intellectual ferment. At that point, some interesting things happened.

Here is the setting. Start at p. 200 in the section, “Some Ethical and Political Consequences” of the chain of being in 18th-century thought. There was, 1. “the counsel of imperfection — an ethics of prudent mediocrity”; i.e. the hierarchic chain is static; man’s position in it is low; so keep your place, watch out for pride. 2. Therefore humans must “necessarily be incapable of attaining any very high degree of political wisdom or virtue, and that consequently no great improvement in men’s political behavior or in their organization of society could be hoped for.” …thusly, “depravity of man”, etc. etc. (p.203) 3. And there was “another way in which the principles embodied in the cosmological conception of the Great Chain of Being could be used as weapons against social discontent and especially against all equalitarian movements.” (p. 205): The world is given as the “best of all possible worlds” (a deduction from the perfection of the good in the chain, known as the “optimism” argument); and remember that “the object of the Infinite Wisdom was to attain the maximum of variety by means of inequality. …Clearly, then, human society is well constituted only if, within its own limits, it tends to the realization of the same desiderata.” (p. 206). Lovejoy then illustrates this common logic in Pope (Essay on Man) and Leibnitz.

But this is just the setting. What happens next? Let’s skip over the next two chapters about the chain of being’s transmission through the 18th century’s arguments from optimism (as defined above) and 18th-century developments in biology.

Go to Chap. IX. The Temporalizing of the Chain of Being. It had been static and rigid. Two problems: As Voltaire (who, with Dr. Johnson, looms large at this juncture of the story, pp. 252-254) pointed out, this leaves no religious or moral hope. (p. 245). And the new scientific studies of nature showed that there does not exist the degree of continuity which the static chain of being requires. (p. 251). To preserve some semblance of the chain of being, this led to the general idea that “the future life must be conceived to be — at least for those who use their freedom rightly — a gradual ascent, stage after stage, through all the levels above that reached by man here” (p. 246). And further, it led to the idea that the chain of being “must be construed as a process in which all the potential forms are gradually realized in the order of time.” This is a new idea (though not, as Lovejoys points out, to the Vedantists) — yet it was quite rapid, and it was an anticipation of evolutionism: “In, roughly, the third quarter of the [18th] theories which may, in a broad sense, be called evolutionistic multiplied.” (p. 268)

One root of modern right-wing tribalism is suggested indirectly in the next chapter: X. Romanticism and the Principle of Plenitude. Lovejoy shows that in the early romanticists the idea of the chain of being went from uniformitarianism to diversitarianism: individual diversity is now the greatest good (and you will find few people who deny it, today) and thus the application of one’s own talents and views is of the highest importance. There are very few changes in the history of Western thought which have been as momentous. From the first expressions of romanticism in the late 18th century Germans, this necessity to conform to the temporalized tenets of the chain of being remains as some sort of propensity of human nature. (This is where Berlin has some interesting observations, though even he admitted they weren’t his best lectures.)

Well this is not only left-wing, this is right-wing. If you look at the common attribute of today’s right-wing tribalism (on its good days, in the rarer and rarer times when it has them) it is belief in the individual’s ascent through a hierarchy, via individual merit. Full stop. Right-wing tribalism is a variation of romanticism, combined with older political tenets of the great chain of being.

Lovejoy himself hoped that the great chain of being had finally been surpassed by the rise of modern science. The point is (and here one wishes the book went on for another 10 chapters) that science is in some ways the precise INVERSE of the idea of emanation downward from the perfect absolute. Science is atomism and bottoms-up evolutionism. The principles of plenitude, continuity, and gradation all take corresponding blows, due to the obvious lack of intervening forms of creatures (from the cataloguing of biological reports from the voyages of discovery began to make that increasingly obvious) and the gaps in “creation” everywhere. So if God is the perfect good, he is pretty piss-poor about it. Which of course is now a commonplace. Of course deism was a possible alternative (God creates whole thing, then steps offstage to take a powder.)

And I am still working on it from this point. I would just point out that science itself has some foundational problems which impels romantic re-applications of the great chain. And point out that, in right-wing tribalism, the great chain of being soldiers on in a romantic version which is setting itself free of any real facts, at all.

The Great Chain of Being: A Study in the History of an Idea by Arthur O. Lovejoy (Harvard Press, 1936, 1964, and still in print for damn good reasons). His style is very dense and circumambient; he requires careful reading. Forget the pad, buy the paperback and get about 4 different color highlighters.


GiT 06.15.14 at 5:30 pm

On writing on trains, this came up in the news recently:


The Raven 06.15.14 at 6:25 pm

I think this is also a interface design and economic issue; our software is designed not just to enable communication but to distract with it. Facebook and Twitter both have business incentives to soak up as much user attention as they can; this was not the case with older cooperatively-developed social media. Matters are very different with software intended for particular tasks or office work.


mattski 06.15.14 at 7:52 pm

The internet makes it harder to read books but so much easier to buy them. Thus the insidious backlog on my night table.


stevenjohnson 06.15.14 at 8:39 pm

Random thoughts on an interesting topic?

1. Either George R.R. Martin or I will die before A Song of Fire and Ice is finished. He’s not suckering me in.

2. I’ve read hundreds of books whose originality gripped me from the beginning and thousands whose charms lasted til the final page. Why are sentences starting to occasionally seem like a portrait gallery of Identi-kit faces? Even more alarming, why are some beginning to seem like op-ed page caricatures?

3. DVD sets of TV series. It is amazing how much more watchable TV is without commercials. And if you don’t have to mentally recap the plot before this week’s installment of a serial, it’s much easier to forget how often the characters have no motives or the plot doesn’t make sense or the show is just repeating the same story beats.


js. 06.15.14 at 8:56 pm

It’s funny reading this on CT, because this blog by itself has made a not-insignificant contribution to cutting down time I might otherwise have spent reading. It’s one of my favorite places to hang out on the internet though, so I am not really complaining.

Although I still manage to read about as much fiction as I used to, which is to say, some but not tons. It’s the sustained non-fiction reading that’s really taken a hit in my life.


novakant 06.15.14 at 9:24 pm

I can still read books without much interruption for days on end, but it has to be a page-turner, e.g. recently books by Jonathan Franzen, William Boyd and Richard Yates. Being conscious of the fractured nature of reading on the internet actually adds to the pleasure of focusing on one book exclusively – it’s like a holiday from all the blahblah and proof that reading books is still a unique pleasure.

I don’t think I could pull off heroic feats like reading Musil, Mann or Hegel now, but I think that has more to do with life my in general than the internet in particular.


Main Street Muse 06.15.14 at 10:17 pm

Novakant @33 – which Franzen is the page turner? I find his works filled with loathing.

Due to the demographic of my family, I find my fiction is filled with YA stuff, which can lead to fun discussions at dinner.

When I had a job that required a 3 yr round-trip commute not long ago, I found that I had much less time with family, but much more time to read. But being gone 12 hours (on a good day) was an unsustainable life in the long run.

Corey – congrats on being named department chair. Good luck! Seems a job fraught with stress, but I think you’ll be fantastic.


grackle 06.16.14 at 2:25 am

“There was no fax, only snail mail, as we called it then. ” I really hope this isn’t so…


Neil Levy 06.16.14 at 3:57 am

I wondered about that too, grackle. Surely “snail mail” was introduced in contrast to email, and therefore only once the latter was available?


Lee A. Arnold 06.16.14 at 3:58 am

JQ #11 — I wrote a long answer about what I found at #28 but it may be too immoderately long to get through moderation.


MPAVictoria 06.16.14 at 5:10 am

“It’s funny reading this on CT, because this blog by itself has made a not-insignificant contribution to cutting down time I might otherwise have spent reading. It’s one of my favorite places to hang out on the internet though, so I am not really complaining.”

Completely agree!

It used to be nothing for me to finish a decent novel in a couple of days. Now it is more likely to take a month or two. Not sure what changed really. I do listen to a ton if audiobooks walking back and forth to work. This is an enjoyable activity but it seem to me to be very distinct from reading real books.


novakant 06.16.14 at 8:37 am

MSM: the two big ones i.e. Corrections and Freedom.

Not sure what you’re getting at, they are certainly quite grim (and Yates is unbearably grim) but to me a page-turner has to be well written, flow well and intellectually not overly demanding.


Sumana Harihareswara 06.16.14 at 11:58 am

I too have specifically gotten on a subway train to read. One day I took the subway to the ferry station at the south end of Manhattan, took the Staten Island Ferry to Staten Island, rode its subway the whole length of that island and back, and returned via subway, to give myself some uninterrupted time with a book.

Also I sometimes eat a meal by myself with a book, which is nice.


Theophylact 06.16.14 at 1:47 pm

I read on the john. Fortunately/unfortunately I have an active colon. I also read while walking, which I don’t do quite enough. Since I’ve retired, I no longer read on the Metro to and from work. Somehow, though, despite all the internettage, I manage to get through several books a week. not to mention two newspapers a day and a whole lot of magazines.


Eszter Hargittai 06.16.14 at 3:47 pm

I’ve wondered more and more in recent months how fellow academics get their reading done. Sure, I find time to read my students’ writing and to read articles and book proposals/books I am asked to review, but other than that, I have a very hard time fitting in reading, especially of books. Yet my colleagues seem to be publishing them more and more (or my interests have expanded) so I’d like that to change, but I’m not sure how to do it so I’m very curious to hear about other people’s strategies And Corey didn’t even mention TV as a distraction, which is something that also cuts into my reading time, although that has always been the case. (And I only have basic cable without any recording devices.)

I’ve been meaning to take the El out to O’Hare, I think this just inspired me to do so.


Shatterface 06.16.14 at 7:05 pm

I find it easy to tune out other people talking on the train – so long as they’re talking face to face and not yelling down the fucking phone. It’s sad that the rise of mobile phones coincided with the demise of manually operated doors so you can’t throw noisy passengers outside and make it look like an accident.

At 47 I still read constantly, though not as much as when I was younger, drank more, and took a lot of drugs, so I don’t think distraction is my problem.


Main Street Muse 06.16.14 at 7:16 pm

Ester – DO take the El out to O’Hare – I am old enough to remember when they built the line – if I remember, the station is kind of Flash Gordon (or so my father told me.) But there was that weird accident at the O’Hare stop not long ago, when the train took a rare, odd trip up the escalator…

OR take the Purple Line downtown. OR take the Metra to someplace far away. The Metra is great for reading (the El seems full of distractions, to me.)


geo 06.16.14 at 7:59 pm

Try getting selected for jury duty. I just spent the day sitting around the courthouse, reading Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, with very few and not very lengthy interruptions. The trial to come may be a bit more distracting, but I expect I’ll still get a lot more reading done than on an average workday.


casino implosion 06.16.14 at 9:25 pm

Nothing beats the Amtrak to Chicago for reading.


Shatterface 06.16.14 at 10:16 pm

I’d be worried if I was on trial and saw jurors reading Game of Thrones – I’ve grown attached to my head.


Ebenezer Scrooge 06.17.14 at 1:03 am

It was easy to read when I was a kid. It gets harder with age. If I could only read as much now as I did then–youth is wasted on the young, even for nerds.


Lee A. Arnold 06.17.14 at 1:13 am

Corey, someone, and I cannot remember who, was just speaking about how much better he THINKS on trains, and speculated that blurred images rushing by in the peripheral vision serve to accelerate forward thinking; and speculated further that this might be an evolutionary trait, handed down to us from our ancestors, who were running away from wild beasts in the jungle etc. Well, I don’t know about that last part, but long rides on trains or buses certainly help me. Airplanes, no. I hate airplanes. It might have been Tom Stoppard in an interview on YouTube. Or Steven Moffat, a writer/showrunner of Dr Who and now Sherlock.


The Temporary Name 06.17.14 at 1:39 am

I’ve grown attached to my head

I’ve grown accustomed to my head
It almost wakes when day begins

I’ve grown accustomed to the tune
That my nose whistles night and noon
My smiles, my crowns, hairs up there falling down
That’s second nature to me now
Like wheezing out and wheezing in

I was serenely unaware and content before I saw
The lines around my mouth and what hangs beneath my jaw
But I’ve grown accustomed to my looks
And resigned to my schnozz, accustomed to my head


Eszter Hargittai 06.17.14 at 1:51 am

MSM – I did take the El out to O’Hare and finally got to read some of My Mistake by Daniel Menaker.

Most distracting to me on the El is gadget noises. Someone was playing a game on a device that had its audio on, which was annoying. Fortunately, the writing was able to hold my attention.

Lee – a couple of years ago I spent a month in Switzerland without a data plan on my phone. I bought an unlimited train pass for the month and went somewhere every day. It was fantastic to sit in the train and watch the countryside without the distraction of a gadget. I did lots of interesting contemplating on those journeys.


AB 06.17.14 at 8:46 pm

With a $7.00 Metra weekend pass, you could read all the way from Chicago to Harvard, Illinois (about 70 miles). It’s the end of the line so with any luck they’ll let you get right back on for the return trip. If you have to wait for another train, the station is quite peaceful (to put it mildly).


hix 06.18.14 at 2:32 pm

Dont think i could do that on subway trains. I´ve done that occasionally with more long distance trains that got a nice landscape to look at.


Krishan Bhattacharya 06.18.14 at 11:52 pm

I find it easier to read while listening to noise. If you are in a distracting environment, put on your headphones and listen to some Brownian or brown noise at
Alternatively there is a decent iOS app called “Soundly Sleeping” which does the same thing. MP3s of Brownian noise can also be found.

Its just what you think: plain, uniform static, covering a range of frequencies. Its uniform character helps to push out distracting sounds in your environment, allowing for greater concentration. It is also an excellent sleep aid. The uniform sound calms the mind, and keeps the mind from jumping at every little sound.


AB 06.19.14 at 12:56 am


The Temporary Name 06.19.14 at 1:04 am

Gee, I use that for sleep and I can’t imagine why it didn’t occur to me for reading.

On the other hand I used to like sports for reading: inane chatter and crowd noise worked well.


godoggo 06.19.14 at 1:26 am

I use a fan.


The Temporary Name 06.19.14 at 2:49 am

Fans use a lot of energy to push that wind around. Go with the noise.


godoggo 06.19.14 at 2:53 am

I like the wind too.


The Temporary Name 06.19.14 at 3:42 am

Maybe you could open a window and sleep on the subway.


godoggo 06.19.14 at 4:04 am

The nearest Metro station is 6 miles away. The nearest subway station, I believe, is Union Station, which is 13 miles away. Aside from time/fuel/tsuris costs, a ticket is $1.50, so if I took the metro to Union Station and back, that would be at least $4.50. I think I read somewhere that the cost of a fan is something like 50¢ a day, although I just googled it and got an answer of 21¢ a day. With a fan at home I can adjust the speed and direct it wherever I want. Also I’m prone to motion sickness. Reading on the train is out, incidentally.


The Temporary Name 06.19.14 at 4:08 am

THIS was the correct answer:


godoggo 06.19.14 at 4:36 am

That was a rather petulant response.


godoggo 06.19.14 at 7:16 am

Get it?


UserGoogol 06.20.14 at 1:29 am

AB/Krishan Bhattacharya: Brown noise and white noise are different things. White noise is uniform across all frequencies, while Brown noise is skewed towards lower frequencies. Subjectively, I’d say white noise sounds more like rain (as the page Krishan links to describes it) while Brown noise sounds more like the ocean.


The Temporary Name 06.20.14 at 3:33 am

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